The bogey of green clearances

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

imageThe environment is holding up growth and economic development. This is the common refrain in circles that matter. So when the Group of Ministers tasked to resolve the issue of coal mining in forests asked for a report on what needs to be done, it was told that the best would be to dismantle green conditions, almost completely.

The B K Chaturvedi committee recommends that all coal mining projects should be given automatic clearance, with exceptions only for projects in “dense” areas. There is no definition of “dense”, of course, or an understanding of the importance of forests for water and livelihood. Then the committee wants all those provisions that seek to protect the rights of people or the environment to be relaxed. It recommends that the gram sabha, required to give consent to the project, should be held without a quorum. In other words, democracy should be sidelined. Similarly, public hearings should be done away with when it comes to expansion of the current mines. It also recommends that even in areas identified critically polluted new projects should be allowed without check. It has no time to waste on such minor considerations as the health of the people who live in these regions. The horrendous cumulative impacts of these massive projects must be ignored, because we are a nation in a hurry, it says.

This report reflects the general mood. It is for this reason the proposed manufacturing policy, which seeks to create massive areas as national investment manufacturing zones, wants none of these inconvenient green checks. It wants to take away all powers of the environment and forest clearances from the Centre and state agencies and hand them over to the project proponent.

But are green clearances holding up projects? My colleagues spent days poring over the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests’ publicly available database to seek answers. What they found should make us wonder why there is such a hue and cry about the environment as an impediment to growth. In fact, the reverse is true: green clearances are certainly failing to safeguard the environment. This is what should concern us. Make us angry.

First, it should be understood that the scale and pace of green clearances have been unprecedented in the past five years. In fact, the pace doubled, with 203,576 hectares (ha) of forestland diverted for mining and industrial projects in the past five years. Coal mining accounted for more than half the forestland diverted, and as many as 113 coal mining projects were cleared—the highest in a five-year plan since 1981.

Secondly, clearances when added together overshoot the current and future targets. Take power projects. The 11th Five Year Plan targets 50,000 MW of additional thermal power capacity to be created till 2012. In the 12th plan the proposal is to add another 100,000 MW. This is what needs to be built and set up till 2017. Now consider this: in the past five years, till August 2011, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests has granted clearances for an astounding 210,000 MW of thermal power capacity, that is 60,000 MW more than what has been proposed till 2017. Now also consider the fact that the thermal power capacity built in the past five years was a mere 32,394 MW. What is going on? Why are new projects asking for clearances when the old, cleared projects are still not being built? Is this a land-water-coal scam, given that each project sits on valuable natural resources? Or is it all about getting the licence to pollute?

Take the cement industry. At the end of the 10th plan, India’s installed capacity was 179 million tonnes per annum (MTPA). During the 11th plan, green clearances have been given to an additional 190 million tonnes per annum, which takes the combined capacity to 369 MTPA, far beyond what is operational or what is proposed as the target for this period. This is true for virtually all the industrial sectors we analysed.

There is another layer of misinformation. Coal shortage is being cited as the reason for underperformance of the energy sector, which, in turn, is leading to a strident call to open up more forested regions for digging. The fact is Coal India Limited (CIL) produces over 90 per cent of India’s coal; it controls over 200,000 ha of mine lease, including 55,000 ha of forest area. The estimated coal reserves with CIL are 64 billion tonnes, and the company produces 500 million tonnes per annum. Who is then responsible for the shortage of coal in the country?

What is clear, instead, is that in this haste to give clearances, it is the environment that is being short-changed. Most mining districts of the country have become a living hell. More are emerging as the hotbeds of thermal, mining and industrial projects, and nobody wants to fix the horrendous environmental fallout of this growth.

What needs to be done? In my view, environmental regulations should be strengthened, not weakened. Growth managers must look for other reasons they are failing in pushing up industry numbers. More importantly, environmentalists must see how the regulatory regime can be worked better. This is the agenda that matters.

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  • Not only I agree with the

    Not only I agree with the views in this editorial, I would like to go one step further. We have to figure out what we can do in existing capacity or less rather than creating more by digging the forest land. This direction is a certian disaster if we consider the ground water situation (and ability of forest lands to harvest rain) as well. The solution may not lie in producing more energy but less energy. If our policy direction is demand side management, we could go a longer way.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Thanks Sunita for this eye

    Thanks Sunita for this eye opener. Why is mis information being bombarded by the powers that be? has the Environment Ministry become defunct?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Kodaikanal has 1200+ illegal

    Kodaikanal has 1200+ illegal hotels. They do not have Pollution Board certification. The municipality had issued licences to all of them but after we (United Citizens Council of Kodaikanal) filed a case against the Govt. of Tamil Nadu, some licences were cancelled. However hoteliers, builders and the municipality are working hand in glove. Raw sewage flows down roads, streams, gutters and when there is no rain the place stinks!
    We do not know what to do with the existing corruption. We have taken the matter to the Madurai High Court but after a year the respondents haven't even filed a counter and the matter drags on.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • In addition to strengthening

    In addition to strengthening the regulations wherever needed, more important is implementation of the regulations.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Please read the following

    Please read the following mythological story. I have added my interpretations.Yes, it's a long story with vivid imagery that went straight to the ' DIL LOGICAL HEART' by BYPASSING the 'LOGICAL HEAD'AND ELICITED REVERENCE AND ADHERENCE!
    The Descent of the Ganges
    This legend relates to the descent of the River Ganga from the heavens into the earth.

    The ruler of Ayodhya, King Sagar, an ancestor of Rama, of the solar race performed the Aswamedha Sacrifice 99 times, where each time, the horse that he sent around the earth, returned to his kingdom unchallenged. Indra the King of Gods and also of RAIN, in an act of jealousy, kidnapped and hid the horse in the hermitage of Kapila Muni - when the 100th sacrifice was being performed.

    The sixty thousand sons of Kapila came to the hermitage of Kapila in their search for the horse, and mistaking Kapila Muni to be the abductor, attacked him. An enraged Kapila Muni burnt the 60000 princes to ashes.

    One of the grandchildren of King Sagar, hearing about the plight of his father and uncles, came in search of Kapila Muni and asked him for a solution to the problem, and was advised that the waters of the River Ganga would miraculously bring back the dead princes to life.

    His descendant Bhagirathi, continued his efforts to bring the Ganga to the earth from the heavens to purify the ashes of his ancestors and bring them back to life. Bhagirata's prayers were rewarded and the Ganges rushed to the earth; however, the might of the river was too much for the earth to withstand. Fearing a catastrophe, Bhagirata prayed to Shiva, who held out his matted hair to catch the river as she descended, and thus softened her journey to the earth.

    Bhagiratha patiently led the river down to the sea from the Himalayas; however, being unable to locate the exact spot where the ashes lay, he requested Ganga to follow her own course. The Ganga, therefore in the region of Bengal, divided herself into a hundred mouths and formed the Ganges delta.

    Interpretation of the symbolisms in the story - by RAMANAND KOWTA

    The ' Descent of Ganga ' is replete with symbolisms - about all LIFE and ECOLOGY.
    - Indestructibility of Life
    - Water is the essence of LIFE. How ? ' Burnt to Ashes ' normally is understood to imply the end of life and no hopes of revival \ resurgence. But life springs up again - when ' ashes ' come in touch with water ! Have we not seen
    -luxuriant growth after a huge forest fire ?
    - a ' defiant blade of grass ' rise up through an unused surface - road etc.?
    - Ganga from heaven stands for ? ! - RAIN from the skies ! !
    - so, what is the Jataamukuta of Shiva ?- that dampens the powerful descent of 'Ganga ' ?
    - It is the FOREST - so thoughtfully provided to absorb the impact of the rain ! - and prevent ' destruction of earth i.e SOIL EROSION ! ! ( the roots hold \ bind the soil and also water together- in a huge underground ÔÇÿ water bank ÔÇÿ ! )
    - in a forest, the excreta of creatures and the leaf litter, shelters the ' friends of the Farmer - the humble Earthworm together with other microbes ' - all of which ' till \ plough ' the soil into a porous sponge. Such soil ( thirsty Mother Earth ) gratefully accepts\ recieves the ' A - TITHEE ' from heaven \ sky \ clouds - and quenches thirst - of itself and all LIFE !
    - the rainwater travels down the pores and ' replenishes the underground water bank'
    - AND thus flows the ' perennial, eternal Ganga ( symbolises every drop of water, lake, river etc... )
    - evaporation from all these Gangas leads to moisture - laden cloud formation.
    - As these clouds drift along, the ' cooling effect ' produced by the natural ' air conditioners - the forest' , invite these 'pregnant' clouds, who happily 'deliver' the RAIN -
    A - TITHEE (without appointment) here !
    -AND thus, the Hydrological (Water ) Cycle goes ON and ON and ON ....
    - Air ( Oxygen), Water and Food.-
    -the 6 F's - Food, Fodder, Fuel, Fertiliser , Fibre and furniture !
    The GREEN PLANT provides all our NEEDS while the INDUSTRIAL PLANT only transforms our NEEDS into WANTS, COMFORTS AND LUXURIES !
    Hence the need to ' balance - NAMASTE ' between Forestry and Agriculture on one hand AND Industry and Urbanisation on the other.

    Suno Shiva -GANGADHAR Ka KEHNA
    Paani Ki Har Boond Hai GANGA !
    Bhoo Mata Ko Nahin Karna NANGA !
    Jungal Nahin TODNA
    Paed Paudhein Khoob LAGAANA !
    Vayu, Pani, Anna Hamesha PAANA !
    Nahin TO KANGAAL ! ! !
    So, this story of the ' Descent Of Ganga ' is the complete \ total symbolism for Life and Biodiversity.
    So what does deforestation achieve ?- soil erosion . This loose soil is washed down by the next ' descending Ganga ' - ( showers) into the river bed , reducing itÔÇÖs effective depth. One heavy downpour leads to ' floods'. After the monsoons, the water is used up soon, leading to a ' drought '. !
    we pass the buck and call them - floods and droughts - Natural Calamities !
    Are we honest ? ! NO ! !
    They are ' Manmade Disasters ' ! ! !
    Can we implement honestly the saying - A TITHEE DEVO BHAVA ?
    We should live such that Mother Earth is able to recieve this ATITHEE - rain - without floods !
    Rainwater harvesting means - welcoming and ensuring the hospitable stay, in your home( land), the A TITHEE from heaven - RAIN - as symbolically represented by the descent of the GANGA into the JATAAMUKUTA ( FOREST ) of SHIVA - and stored for future use in the underground ' water bank' -sustainably managed by the root systems and thus ensure the flow of the eternal, perrenial GANGA and all other rivers - big and small !
    Thus we can truly apply the wise adage ' A TITHEE DEVO BHAVA ! '

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Senator John Kerry had

    Senator John Kerry had written that "India is now the fourth largest emitter of CO2 emissions while China is the world's largest. India's energy consumption is projected to quadraple over the next 25 years and it is likely to be the third largest emitter in the world by 2015".While at the same time research is revealing about the global facts related to climate change. It is no longer a fallacy. Bangkok is flooded as never before. Precipitaiton is increasing in our part of the world. And Africa, of course, even though the least emitter, is the most affected and vulnerable. We cannot reverse climate change. But we need to do things - change our energy systems profoundly. And move towards renewable energy sources. On the other hand, we will need to look at methods of mitigation, plans to protect our cities and its teeming populace. Our future plans must take this into consideration.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • In her usual conscientiously

    In her usual conscientiously careful fashion, Sunita Narain makes her point ironclad with understatement -- and thus all the more powerful.
    Anyone paying attention to the deluge of clearances will know that MOEF's clearance decisions have not only continued at an unsustainable pace, but also seldom reflect any rigorous consideration of the real environmental costs of the projects. These failures continue apace because MOEF has paid little attention to the kind of thorough environmental evaluation intended and required by the Environmental Impact Regulations.
    The mystery is why the Group of Ministers should bother themselves about further weakening the regulations when they already are getting all that they want through administrative disregard of the law. As urged by Ms. Narain, it is the latter that needs attention.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply

    WITH REFERENCE TO YOUR NEWS LETTER : Industry says environmental concerns are stalling progress. Recent investigations by CSE suggest otherwise: very rarely has an industrial project been refused a green clearance, and this is the focus of Sunita Narain's edit this fortnight.

    I MY SELF IS AN INDUSTRALIST I WOULD LIKE TO COMMENT THAT 50% of the persons who have taken clearances these projects may not see the light of the day 30% would come up in next 3-4 years and the rest who are at initial stages and propose to come up with their projects if they hope there is profitibility in these projects in the future , they have just taken clearances as they know the legal hassles and time consuming process involved in getting clearances. so just to save time if at all they start the project at a later date that these cleasrances are being taken.

    well one more fact is 70% do not undertake any impact assessment and is just a copy and paste method being adopted by these consultants and managements

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Congratulations on this very

    Congratulations on this very forthright editorial. It is indeed a sad commentary that the policy makers are in a hurry to destroy the environment for a ÔÇÿfew pieces of the silver coinÔÇÖ as it were. What comes out very clearly is that collusion, connivance and cartelization is rampant strangely under the garb of creating competition. The PPP model is the most convenient instrument and template to achieve this oligarchic goal.
    Whatever happened to the pricing mechanism for the natural resources, the clearance mechanism cannot be allowed to serve the pelf seeking goals.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • It is telling revelation of

    It is telling revelation of statistics that more green clearances have been given by the authorities concerned than have been asked for. No need of quorum. The nation in a tearing hurry for growth; hence democracy is sidelined. These are the words in the article. But these are true also. In fact our constitution is in conflict with tenets of democracy. Unelected Governors juxtaposed to destabilize elected state governments and unelected PM, allowing even a foreigner in that post for six months at least or PM without being directly elected by the people are anachronistic in a democracy. So the Constitution provides for democracy to be sidelined. Now about economic prosperity and environmental damage. The crude capitalism of profit maximization was tempered in later days by sales maximization to ward off Marx's prognosis and Keynesian stagnation. This middle phase of economic take off and flight path without damage to environment has now given way to crony capitalism that breeds nepotism, favoritism and rampant corruption. This is networked on quid pro quo basis among the politicians, bureaucrats, administrators and police on the ground. However there is only some hope from the Judiciary. Mayawati has just been jolted for a change. But on the flip side i believe that land sharks and the mining mafias wont be deterred. As if they are our so-called democratic Govt.'s raison detre.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • The issue of environmental

    The issue of environmental protection vis a vis economic growth is of recent phenomenon. Capitalism in its early stage was confronted with the problem of market sharing and cartel formation--Microsoft was dragged to federal court on this. Progress of capitalism never gave a damn about environment and ecological damage. Stage-IV capitalism in the West is faced with Green Peace movements. However their money power can buy them carbon credits to continue to damage the environment. India is far way behind in stage-II which needs industrial progress. Decline in IIP is a cause of worry for the UPA-2 Govt. Hence the scenario depicted in the article has arisen. Balancing development with environment and ecology depletion is real problem for India which is accentuated by unchecked population and minority vote bank politics.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Yes, you have placed

    Yes, you have placed irrefutable facts before the lobbyist of bogey - “environment is holding up growth and economic development”. In fact compliance of environment regulation would accelerate positive growth and create efficient flow sheets. At the same time, environment clearance mechanism is required to be swift and enforcement/monitoring efficient. New technology induction in mining sector that reduces land scarring, pollution and environment degradation should be promoted with incentives.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Such a normative approach is

    Such a normative approach is ideal. But does it happen in practice? The most advanced country, the US is the most offender of environment and they buy carbon credits to dodge violations. Lobbyists must balance their pro-active stand against industries. It is easier said than done. India has to progress under a democratic setup with a growing population that is a drag on her resources.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Dick Feynman used to say

    Dick Feynman used to say Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts. Please tell me what is this Study (Smt Sunitha is refereeing), what are the controls, what did and did not coalesce with the belief system they started out with; how repeatable are your findings. Do not do a disservice to science by being too easy on the method. I'm least bothered about the policy implications and all that. I'm bothered only about the SCIENCE.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • " The fact is Coal India

    " The fact is Coal India Limited (CIL) produces over 90 per cent of India’s coal; it controls over 200,000 ha of mine lease, including 55,000 ha of forest area. The estimated coal reserves with CIL are 64 billion tonnes, and the company produces 500 million tonnes per annum. Who is then responsible for the shortage of coal in the country? " Why is this ? Why isn't CIL able to mine more when you seem to indicate that is clearly no dearth of coal reserves ? And you have ruled out environmental clearances as a reason because that does not seem to be a hindrance to CIL, at least according to you. So whats the reason ?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply